Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#10: Ethics, God's Commandments, and the Euthyphro Dilemma

August 30, 2023 Jarrod Blair Episode 10
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#10: Ethics, God's Commandments, and the Euthyphro Dilemma
Show Notes Transcript

Is an action right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right?  

This was the question posed by Socrates to a priest named Euthyphro over 2000 years ago, and it has become one of the most famous questions in all of philosophy. In this episode, I talk about how either of these options are a tough pill to swallow, because one implies that God's commands are arbitrary, and the other implies that God's commands are not the foundation of morality. I discuss which option I think is most plausible, and then I talk about some practical benefits of thinking through the Euthyphro dilemma for both believers and non-believers alike. 

Outro music; "Tokyo Cafe" by TVARI on Pixabay

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Hello, welcome back Virtue Vibes listeners. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today we're gonna talk about one of the most interesting philosophical questions of all time; the Euthyphro Dilemma. Almost everybody I’ve met in academic philosophy has heard about this dilemma, and almost everybody I’ve met outside of academic philosophy has no idea what it’s all about, so I’m excited to try and present it today in an accessible way. 

 This discussion will be a bit different than what you’re used to hearing on Virtue Vibes. Instead of thinking about how to act ethically in some specific situation like we usually do, we’re going to take a step back and think about the nature of ethics itself. In particular, we’re gonna question the relationship between ethics and God’s commandments.  

Many people believe that God's commands are the foundation of ethics, and that the reason some action is right or wrong is simply that God has commanded it. The Euthyphro dilemma throws a massive wrench in this way of thinking, and it pushes us to think harder about what exactly it means to be good.  

I hope this episode is interesting for my religious listeners as well as my atheist and agnostic listeners, and I’ll try bring up some applications towards the end for how I think this topic is helpful for people from a variety of backgrounds.  

Also, I’m not going to assume the truth of any particular religion, because what I’ll say should apply to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and really any religion that posits a divine being who has given us commandments for how to live.  

Alright, buckle up boys and girls, we’re going for a ride today. 

 

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So as I mentioned before, many believe that God’s commandments are the foundation of ethics. This is saying something stronger than just that we should trust in and rely on God’s commands. Believing that God’s commandments are the foundation of ethics is to believe that the commands themselves are what make actions right or wrong. On this view, the reason why killing is wrong is because God says “thou shalt not kill.” The reason why adultery is wrong is because God says "thou shall not commit adultery.” And the reason why we should honor our parents is because God says “thou shall honor thy father and mother.” And that’s all there is to say about ethics. Pretty straightforward, right? But as we’ll talk about shortly, I don’t think this is a very plausible view, and I'll use the Euthyphro dilemma to help me explain why not.  

But before we jump into that, I wanted to take a moment to explain why I think this is an important topic to address. The first reason to address it is that there are some religious people would dismiss the kind of work I’m doing here on Virtue Vibes entirely. If God’s commandments themselves are what makes actions right or wrong, then there’s not much left to think about, and ethics is simply a matter of looking to a holy text to see if God has said something about it. If he did, then there’s our answer, and if he didn’t, then the topic must not be a matter of ethics, and anyone trying to think through tough ethical questions (like me!) without reference to God’s commands must be misguided.  

Needless to say, I don’t agree with this view of ethics, and I’d like to suggest a better one. The view that I’ll suggest is still compatible with having religious belief and reverence for God’s commands, but it’s a view that does not make God’s commands the reason why actions are right or wrong. By doing this, I hope to make certain religious people more open to the kind of ethical reasoning about various subjects that we do here on Virtue Vibes.  

Another related reason I want to tackle this topic is to improve the quality of dialogue between believers and atheists or agnostics. If you’re a believer, you might feel like you can’t have productive conversations about ethics with atheist or agnostic people because they don’t revere God’s commands. And if you’re an atheist or agnostic person, you might simply write off entirely any commandments given by God in all the various religious traditions. You don’t believe in God, or you’re unsure about his existence, so those commandments mean nothing to you, right? These kinds of perspectives create a stone wall between religious and non-religious people in ethical conversations. Although there will always be some distance between these two world views, I’m hoping that the view of ethics I put forward can make room for some more interesting dialogue, and perhaps transform that stone wall into a white picket fence.  

So on that note, let’s dive into the Euthyphro dilemma.  

 

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The Euthyphro dilemma comes from a Socratic dialogue written by Plato over 2000 years ago, around roughly 395BC. In this dialogue, Socrates is questioning whether “rightness” or “goodness” can be defined as simply being “what the gods command.” Socrates then poses a powerful question to a man named Euthyphro, who was a priest of sorts. The question is this: Is an action right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right?  

Let’s think about some implications of taking that first option, that an action is right because the gods command it. Bear with me for a second through this thought experiment. What if God were to command child abuse? Would that really make it right? I'm sure you’d agree that something sounds off about this. You might reply to this thought experiment by saying, “Hey, God would never command child abuse, because he is a good God, so he would never do something like that!” Fair enough, but this kind of reply itself is appealing to some ethical standard other than God’s commands in order to say that he wouldn't command such a thing. By saying that God wouldn’t command child abuse because he is good, you are implicitly admitting that there’s some other standard of goodness that isn’t based solely on God’s commands. So this kind of response is unavailable to the person who thinks that ethics is solely based on God’s commandments. In order to be consistent, such a person would have to believe that acts which are now evil, such as child abuse, could somehow become good if only God’s commands were different. This seems a bit... arbitrary to me, and I hope you can see why this is quite a strange view of ethics.  

Let’s consider another example, one that pretty much everyone should be able to relate with. Let’s think about the rules, or “commandments,” that parents give to their children. “Do your homework, and don’t cheat,” “Brush your teeth before you go to bed,” “Don’t pull your sister hair!” Commands like these are supposed to govern a child’s actions so that they behave well. But the reason why these commands are worth obeying is not just because their parents said so, but because, presumably, there’s a good reason why they said so. Children should do their homework and not cheat so that they can actually learn the lesson and develop honest habits. Children should brush their teeth so that they don’t rot by the age of 30, causing them a lot of pain and unnecessary hardship. The reason you shouldn’t pull your sister’s hair isn’t just because momma said not to, it’s because she’s writhing in pain when you do it. Reasons like these are what makes those rules, or commandments, worth obeying. If parents just liked making up rules just to watch their child-puppets dance, then these rules would be arbitrary, and they wouldn’t really deserve our respect.  

So now let’s relate this back to the Euthyphro dilemma. Is an action right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right? It’s considerations like the ones I just raised that push me towards accepting that second option. If God has indeed given us commandments, which I’m just assuming for the sake of this argument, then there must have been some good reason for doing so in each particular case. The fundamental reason why “thou shalt not kill” isn’t because God said not to, it’s because of the harm you cause that person and their loved ones, and you take away their future, which was full of incredible possibilities. The reason why “thou shalt not commit adultery” isn’t because God flipped a coin and said “It’s tails! Let’s tell people to not have sex outside of marriage.” Instead, it might be because there’s something valuable about committing yourself to another person for life, and adultery undermines the strength of that relationship in some way. The fundamental reason why you should honor your father and mother isn’t because God said so. Instead, it might be because they know a thing or two, and they can help guide you to maturity. And a society where younger people respect and take good care of their older family members is far better off than one where parents get routinely forgotten and left in the dust.  

I’m sure there’s some things missing in my descriptions of why these actions might be right or wrong, but you get the picture. In general, it makes a lot more sense for there to be reasons behind God’s commands that are based on features about our actual world, like the suffering or wellbeing that certain actions bring about. And it's those features, and not the simple fact that God commanded it, that would make an action right or wrong.  

This, however, is a highly controversial conclusion. I’ve been arguing that there is a standard of goodness that is outside of God’s commands, and that this standard is what makes actions wrong or right, not the commands themselves. Many pastors, priests, rabbis, and spiritual leaders from various religions strongly disagree with what I’ve just said. They think that all of morality is simply a matter of obeying god, and that rooting morality in features outside of this paradigm is blasphemous.  

Although I ultimately disagree with them, they are right to recognize that accepting the second option in the Euthyphro dilemma comes at a price. We would have to give up on the idea that God’s commands are the foundation of morality. This is a price that many religious people are unwilling to pay.  

And this is why it’s called a dilemma. It presents two options, which are sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma, and both of them pierce certain religious worldviews in some way. If you take the first horn and say that actions are right because God commands them, then it seems like those commandments are arbitrary. But if you take the second horn and say that God commands actions because they are right, then God’s commands are not the foundation of morality. Accepting either horn of this dilemma is costly, but to me, the second option is far more plausible than the first. Assuming for the sake of argument that God exists and has given us commands, I don’t think actions would be right because God commands them. Instead, God would be commanding them because they are right.  

 

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If you’re a religious person yourself, you might find these conclusions to be unacceptable. I’d encourage you to think about it some more and try to find some flaw in the reasoning. For example, one way that many Christian thinkers have tried to respond to the Euthyphro dilemma is by saying it is a false dilemma, and that there is a third option that Socrates fails to include that is more compatible with the view that God’s commandments are at the center of morality. I haven’t found any arguments like this that I think are convincing, so I’m not going to include them here, but perhaps you might, so I thought this was worth mentioning. 

However, I will say this. I actually don’t think the second horn of the dilemma is all that devastating for a religious worldview. Sometimes philosophy professors stretch this second horn too far and say that it  means God has nothing to do with morality, or that morality is completely independent of his will. Even if you accept that God’s commands are not the fundamental reason why an action is right or wrong, it would still make sense to listen to and revere those commands, because God is supposedly all-knowing and wise and has your best interest in mind. This means that God would know what’s best, kind of like how parents (hopefully) know what’s best for their kids, and we can defer to his judgment. Furthermore, even if the standards that determine whether an action is right or wrong derive from features of the world, as I've been suggesting, rather than God’s commands, God is supposedly the one who created that world, which means that, at least in some sense, God is responsible for why ethics is the way it is. He willed it to be this way by creating this kind of world. For these reasons, I think the second horn of the dilemma might not be that pointy. It’s more like a stub, which is why I think it’s the better option for religious people to take.  

Alright, so that was a lot of abstract reasoning, so nice job for making it this far into the podcast. But I don’t want to leave this discussion on such an abstract level. You might be wondering, how is any of this going to make any difference in my actual life? Practically, why does any of this even matter? I can think of a couple reasons why accepting the second horn of the dilemma has practical benefits for both believers and non-believers alike.  

Firstly, if you’re a believer who comes to accept the second horn of the dilemma, this opens you up to thinking more about why God would command certain things. And once you understand why on a deeper level, this can greatly help your resolve to follow through with those commandments. For example, a person who’s only reason for not cheating on their spouse is because God said not to is less likely to stay faithful than a person who is keenly aware of the heartbreak and loss of trust that comes from cheating. So deepening your understanding of the why behind gods commandments has the practical benefit of strengthening your resolve.  

Another benefit for believers of accepting the second horn is that you become more open to thinking through ethical questions that God has not mentioned in your holy text. If ethics is determined by features of our world, like suffering or wellbeing, rather than God’s commandments, and if you notice that these features are present in situations that God has not mentioned, this gives you a strong reason to think through and develop an ethical code for how to behave in those situations. Even though you won’t have God’s commands to defer to in these cases, you can still do quality work in ethics, which can improve your life and the lives of others in your sphere of influence. Lastly, a lot of what I’m doing here on Virtue Vibes will make more sense to you, so maybe that’s the best benefit of all haha.  

I also think there are some practical benefits for non-believers. If that's you, congrats on making it this far into a podcast that’s about God’s commands. Hopefully it was still interesting, and I think there are some real benefits to understanding the Euthyphro dilemma. As I mentioned before, it often feels like there’s a massive stone wall between believers and non-believers when talking about ethical questions. Believers think we have God-given commands, and you don’t think so, so how can a conversation about ethics make any progress?  

I think the Euthyphro dilemma helps us to break down this stone wall a bit. If you can explain why it’s much more plausible that God would command things because they are right, then you can unlock a new form of dialogue from your religious friends, and you might learn a great deal from it. Instead of your religious friend explaining the value of marriage to you by saying “God said its good, and that’s that,” they might begin to elaborate on why they think God would command such a thing. They’ll start referring to features of marriage that make it valuable, and then suddenly you are talking the same language again, and you might gain some valuable insights which have been embedded in these various religious traditions. This also gives you an opportunity to better explain any disagreements you may have with their specific religion’s ethical code, because again, you’ll be talking the same language, which concerns features of the actions themselves that make things right or wrong. This could help them to grow as well, and to consider any ethical shortcomings of their particular religion.  

I’m not saying that this solves everything, and that believers and non-believers are gonna sit around a fire and sing kumbaya now. There’s still a large gap in worldviews, because believers take themselves to be deferring judgment to a perfect being, while non-believers don't. But if we can make even just small ethical gains in our conversations together, that’s at least something, right? So perhaps that stone wall can instead become a white picket fence. One where the boundaries are clear, but through which conversation is still possible.